And music for all.

Two things to say before I start this post. Firstly, I did my secondary education at a place called Tiffin Boys’ School. Get over it. Secondly, this blog is not about the facts of the past, it’s about my memory. I could go and Google the stats, the sales figures that tell me whether I’m right or wrong, but I just want to tell it how it seemed to me.

I want to write about music, about buying music and listening to music. Actually, I want to write about London in the early eighties and going to record fairs but then I found that this needed writing first. A prologue, if you like, to set the scene.

Because I was thinking about those record fairs and how we used to drive to them in my car and it seems to me that what we had – me and a small group of my friends – was a specialist interest.

I remember when I was sixteen, on Saturdays, I used to take the 213A bus from Worcester Park to Sutton, where I would work in the kitchen at British Home Stores all day. My sanity was preserved by a ‘casual’ called Tony. A ‘casual’ was the term my friends and I used to describe one of the many disparate tribal groups around at the time. I can’t remember much about casuals except I think they dressed in a way one’s mother might have approved of and usually had smart hair. Rather like an eighties interpretation of a mod, now I come to think about it.

Tony and I didn’t have much in common but with an eight hour day that consisted of putting dirty cutlery and crockery in one end of an industrial dish washer and then taking it out and checking it for cleanliness at the other, we worked hard at entertaining ourselves. We put the letter M in front of people’s names and, nearly thirty years later, I can still recall us discussing the musical merits of Mherbie Mhancock.

Sometimes we would sing but our lack of cultural overlap meant that the only tunes we had in common were from ‘Grease’. Periodically, our Scandinavian manager would rush in and shout, in her curiously strangled voice, “Tony and Fenner! No more singing in the washup.”

I was paid ten pounds for a Saturday’s steamy singalong with Mtony and, having collected my pay packet at morning break, I would cross Sutton Market at lunchtime to go to the record shop. In those days an album cost £3.99, a single 99p and a 12″ single (or an ep) was £1.99. In my mind, this remains the perfect pricing structure and, happily, it gave me several satisfying options for spending my ten pounds. At that time I was buying Depeche Mode, The Human League, Japan, Ultravox, OMD, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, Simple Minds, Soft Cell and Blancmange plus obscure little one hit wonders like The Passage, Our Daughter’s Wedding and Susan Fassbender, wondering about Brian Eno and DAF, viewing Talking Heads with suspicion and also worrying that no one seemed sure whether it was Walter or Wendy Carlos playing classical music on synthesisers.

On the bus home in the evening I would scrutinise the record covers, always feeling horribly cheated when then the inner sleeve of an album was plain white paper, but thrilled when the lyrics were printed out.

I was at school in Kingston and at that time we had four record shops, I think. Well, three and a half. The half was a shop called Books, Bits and Bobs, which sold all manner of fancy dress, bondage clothes, hallowe’en masks and all sorts of other stuff, although I don’t recall any books now I think about it. Oh, they had comics, too, but the reason I went in was for their racks of second hand and ex-jukebox singles. It was there that I picked up my copy of The Human League’s cover of Mick Ronson’s Only After Dark.

We also had an Our Price – still trendy, then, I think – and a shop called Beggars Banquet which was run along similar lines to Championship Records, the fictional record shop in Nick Hornby’s crap book and John Cusack’s excellent film ‘High Fidelity’. The Goths and new wavers behind the counter viewed my tastes with suspicion and mistrust although I alleviated this to some (tiny) extent by purposefully buying my copy of The Cure’s Let’s Go To Bed from there.

Finally, there was my favourite, the prosaically named Record Shop, where I would peruse for hours, treated as an equal by the two chaps who ran the shop, who would hold back for me such gems as the limited edition 12″ releases by Depeche Mode that contained live tracks on their b-sides.

(Actually, in those days Millets also sold records, imported from Portugal, I think. They were temptingly cheaper but the sound quality was worse and the covers made it seem like the blue cones in one’s eyes had stopped working.)

Walking the streets of Kingston, returning to school at the end of a lunch hour, perhaps, with a record bag seemed the epitome of cool to me. It was my thing. Or nearly my thing. There were other boys at school who bought records: Jon Priest and Matt Rumbold (punk, new wave, most anything off John Peel); Paul Blake (Genesis and prog rock); Andy Algar and Paul Robinson (Mods, for the most part); and Colin Timmins, with whom I shared a love of Gary Numan and Simple Minds. Outside of our own factions, we mostly held one another’s musical tastes in low regard and yet there was a very loose affiliation between us, because we all liked music.

And now, finally, I’m coming to the point of what I wanted to write about. Back then, in the early eighties, many people would have a few records by a handful of bands. Mostly singles and the occasional album. Or, in the case of people like myself, they would have, at the age of sixteen, maybe a hundred albums. I remember going to someone’s house once who had fifty albums (I counted). What thoroughly bemused me about this – apart from the fact he owned Simple Minds’ Sister Feelings Call but *not* Sons And Fascination – was that he was in some hitherto unsuspected no man’s land of having not a few records or a lot of records but just quite a lot. It didn’t seem right.

I think this all changed when CDs came along and suddenly it seemed everyone had a record collection. The CD player was the must have artefact and, once bought, you needed something to play in it: George Michael’s Faith, Dire Straits Brothers In Arms, Nigel Kennedy’s Four Seasons and so on.

So, have I got that right? Or was it just my cloistered world that gave me that impression? Was liking music or, perhaps, buying music a niche pleasure? Were there just a few of us? Or am I imagining it and music was the almost universal passion that it seems to be today?

And, it seems, you didn’t need to know I was educated at Tiffin Boys’ School, after all. Founded by John and Thomas, don’t you know?

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12 Responses to And music for all.

  1. Elise says:

    I loved that! It made me LOL several times. And evoked a mood, too. And I loved this idea: “The CD player was the must have artefact and, once bought, you needed something to play in it”

    I can’t answer your question, though. I was sixteen in 1991, that brief, scorned/ignored transitional period between the record player and CD (which itself was a blip on the way to the iPod), the era of the cassette. My bit of pocket money from babysitting and piano students went mainly to thrift store clothes; Christmas and birthdays were to acquire books; and each painfully acquired cassette was an epoch. Later I got into second-hand records, especially opera records from an annual symphony sale (I had a record player all along but mostly used it for the windfall of 8-tracks that introduced me to Ziggy Stardust). However, in 1991, I seem to recall everyone in high school being obsessed with music – it’s just most loved mainstream pop (until Nirvana broke) or rap.

  2. Russell Ison says:

    What a wonderfully evocative blog! As a contemporary of yours at Tiffin School, I was more likely to be found going through the shelves of Botes Bookshop in Brook Street than flicking through the sleeves in Beggars Banquet. I did buy music yes, but what I bought was never as cool as the selections made by you, Matt and Colin, I am sure. That said, you are completely right about the advent of the CD player. My first CD player was bought in Audio Boots in Clarence Street and, the player having been the thing I wanted, I realised I needed some CDs as well. Dire Straits Brothers In Arms was the first CD in my collection (so from that you can judge the degree of cool that can be attached to my collection).

    What downloads have done to both music and reading is take away the tactile pleasure of records and books. There is something about holding a CD (and reading the sleeve notes) that you don’t get with an iTunes download. And, no matter how sophisticated the technology for reading an e-book, nothing beats going into Waterstones (or better still an independent bookshop), browsing the books, buying one and starting to read it in the coffee shop next door – as I did on Saturday.

    One other question arises: with MP3 or iTunes downloads so widespread now, what do sixteen year olds working in the BHS kitchen do during their lunch hour now?

    • I couldn’t agree more about the “tactile pleasure” although I’m not sure that even CDs managed to conjure the same magic as a vinyl album sleeve. I’m sure I will prove myself wrong but right now I can’t imagine switching from books. There’s something wrong about the percentage read bar on a Kindle.

  3. Ric Francis says:

    I remember buying my first CD player (a rather lovely NAD) in the summer of 1987. Though I do like to occasionally flatter myself that I am somewhere near the bleeding edge of technology, I was in fact really not in this case and yet I did actually have to go out of my way to find albums that were available to buy on CD.

    Current pop discs weren’t a problem however, apart from the fact that they were all crap, so I was there spending my hard-earned student grant on Terence Bloody Trent Bloody D’Arby in order that I had *something* to play on my lovely new thing. I seem to recall at one point chart CDs reached £17.99. Worth every penny 🙂

    Oh, why is it winter in your blog? Have you emigrated?

    • I remember your Nad! I’m not sure I bought any CDs until after I left Liverpool. I think the first one was The Sensual World.
      Good point re the picture. I’ll address that tonight.

  4. Chris Budd says:

    You are not alone.

    I still nurture, like an old friend, my overdraft from my student days. Yanks record shop In Manchester was responsible for most of it, I once came away with two boxes of records from one of their more ridiculous sales. Not as ridiculous as the Beatles Barkers and Ronald Reagan reading war poems albums I bought (why? Because they were there).

    A friend once remarked that I buy my music based upon price, and he had a point. But it was also the sheer joy of hearing something unlike anything you’d heard before, such as English Settlement by XTC. And hearing it over and over again.

    Why is why I think your marvellous blog does, indeed, hark back to a time that has been lost, a time when we pondered over music, sought out the subtleties and intricacies. The conveyor belt of music that the home recording and MP3 age has brought upon us is not a good step, imho. I try and slow myself down, but there’s just so much to hear!

    • I couldn’t agree more. Somehow the sense personal involvement has gone. I would play the records I bought over an over, rarely giving up on anything. Now it’s too easy to pass over anything that doesn’t instantly appeal. Much as I love Spotify, I don’t listen to new music on there the same way I do as if I buy a CD speculatively.
      I was at university in Liverpool and I ran up an impressive overdraft of my own with my more than weekly trips to Probe and Backtracks. And much as I love having my entire music collection at my fingertips, I miss the ritual of the stylus and the anticipatory crackle.

  5. Ali B says:

    I remember each purchase being carefully considered; at Strawberry Fields records in my home town you could stand and listen to whole albums if you paced yourself carefully enough looking through the racks. Red Rhino in Leeds and The Fenton pub were pretty much responsible for my overdraft. Then I had to sell a whole load when I had a 3 month gap between signing on and getting my housing benefit. Sad, sad days.

    • That is sad. Mind you, I still have all my vinyl in the loft and I don’t know what will happen to it.
      I remember listening to what was playing as one browsed through the racks and the rush of hearing something new that I liked combined with the horror of having to go up and ask what it was.

  6. Matt Salford says:

    I think I bought more cassettes probably because the possession of an Alba personal stereo. The possession of a dual tape player, thereby allowing you to copy songs or entire albums was a must have too.

    Whilst reading this I also remember that at one point there were 4 Our Price Record shops in Reading, plus the usual other stores, HMV, WHSmiths and as well as a few independents. Now we’re stuck with a single HMV (and they call it progress).

    Chatting with a friend last week about this, and we both agreed that there is something special about records, about that whole album feeling where the total is greater than the sum of it’s tracks, with its artist arranged order, learning which songs follow which, and instinctively learning the length of the gaps between songs which just added to the experience. Unfortunately not something i can programme into spotify but at least it does allow me to reminisce with copies of all the albums i threw away over the years or replaced with cds I no longer listen to.

    • Hi Matt,
      That’s interesting, what you’re saying about the number of shops because it makes me wonder if I have remembered the situation wrongly; why were there so many record shops if it was such a niche passion? But I guess people have always bought singles and there were some albums that were massively popular. Maybe it was about the number of albums we bought compared with everyone else? That’s beginning to make a bit more sense…
      I agree absolutely about the album experience. Apparently when John Cale and Lou Reed were recording Songs for Drella, they argued about the length of time between particular tracks. I love that!

  7. nigelridpath says:

    I possibly wasn’t quite as aware of your musical odyssey whilst at Tiffin as I thought I was. Being in the year below you, I started my secondary school musical tribalism with ska too (Madness, UB40, The Specials), but it was your influence that tugged me away from the loafers, braces and Fred Perry polo shirts (remembering that dress sense was as much part of the tribalism as musical taste) and into the androgynous world of the futurists. You must have ‘made the move’ before I got to know you well.

    I remember very clearly you pointing me towards Depeche Mode at the time Leave in Silence was out (on a half term district scout camp in the heart of Surrey somewhere, of all places! (what was the name of that girl you were after? She became an embalmer … !!)). This started for me a lifelong obsession with the band, and for that, massive thanks are due.

    An introduction to other gems like The Human League, Thompson Twins, Japan and Soft Cell also followed. A second-hand copy of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret was my first album and Depeche’s Get the Balance Right was my first 12″ (my first ever single being from several years earlier, the classic Video Killed the Radio Star).

    I remember the same Kingston record shops as you, but you don’t mention one of the pastimes of the time. Occasionally, one of the shops might do a record at a price slightly below your standard pricing structure. This meant that even though you new you wanted to buy the new Blancmange/A Flock of Seagulls/Yazoo album, you had to go to ALL of the outlets, just in case someone was doing it for £3.79! And Woolies (RIP) used to do a good line in singles that had just fallen out of the chart at big discounts!

    But I suppose there is little point being misty-eyed – remembering the times spent round dear friends’ houses listening eagerly to some freshly bought vinyl, fiercely protecting purchases from younger siblings with less careful approaches to edge-handling or meticulous squeezing of a 45 min 15 sec album onto one side of a TDK AD90. The time has gone. But I’m glad to say, my dear Fenner, that your recollections and mine appear to be as fresh and excited as we were leafing through lines of records in Our Price in Kingston in 1982.

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